WASHINGTON – Nearly a year since the Afghanistan withdrawal kicked off a series of setbacks that sent President Joe Biden's approval numbers on a downward spiral, this week had the makings of a comeback.
In one of the most productive and successful weeks of his beleaguered presidency, an al-Qaida leader was killed, gas prices dipped below $4 per gallon in half the country, parts of Biden's agenda passed the narrowly divided Senate, conservative Kansas protected abortion access in a stunning vote, and huge job gains signaled the resilience of the economy.
Biden's new challenge will be convincing Americans, who still feel the strain of paying more to live, that the country is moving in the right direction.
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"I would feel the right direction would be $1.20 a gallon," said Christina Hyde, 35, an independent voter in Calhoun, Georgia.
New jobs report: The latest jobs report showed an increase of 528,000 in July – the final piece of recovering 22 million jobs lost to COVID-19. The unemployment rate dropped to 3.5%, tying a 50-year low reached just before the pandemic.
The upside: Major job gains may quell warnings that a recession is imminent and offer a bright spot among high housing costs, grocery prices and utility bills.
The downside: More jobs mean there are more workers, more consumer spending and more demand, which could further drive up inflation. The Federal Reserve, which had predicted and wanted lower numbers, will probably move to raise interest rates again to try to tamp down inflation.
Why it matters: If Biden can point to an improving economy, along with a groundswell of voters motivated to the polls by a Supreme Court decision against abortion rights, it could benefit Democrats in the midterms. Polling has shown the economy has been one of the weakest areas and biggest vulnerabilities for the president's party heading into the elections in November.
What the jobs report means for Biden and the midterms
Biden described the jobs report Friday as "outstanding" and historic: "More people are working than at any point in American history."
The president touted the 10 million jobs added on his watch as "the fastest job growth in history," as he emerges from COVID-19 with a strong message to take on the road.
Biden pointed to the 613,000 manufacturing jobs since he took office as "the most in three decades."
If this messaging connects with voters, gas prices continue to drop and the Federal Reserve's interest rate increases and wealthy Americans' spending are enough to stave off a recession, that is likely to benefit Democrats in the midterms, especially as the abortion fight motivates voters to the polls.
Polling shows the economy, abortion and inflation are the top issues on voters' minds.
Gas prices – a cost most voters feel weekly, if not daily – have fallen an average of 50 cents nationally in the past month. In several areas, prices are less than $4 per gallon. Prices dropped 20% in more than a dozen states this week. Costs are likely to fall further in autumn as winter-blend gas, which is cheaper to make than summer-blend gas, hits the market.
That doesn't matter much to independent voters such as Christina Taylor, 42, a mortgage bankruptcy specialist in Cincinnati. Gas prices are falling in her city, but she'd prefer to see them about $2 less per gallon.
She said she is so squeezed by inflation that she couldn't afford college room and board payments for her sons and uses her employee health savings account to buy toilet paper, paper towels and mouthwash at Walgreens.
"Going to the grocery store and gas station is literally the worst," Taylor said. "I'm not sure if the leaders in the White House and Congress realize how much regular American people are struggling."
She has voted for both parties, she said, but she's leaning Republican this year because of the economy.
If the economy continues to show positive signs and the abortion issue helps Democrats attract Republicans and independents as it did in Kansas this week, Biden could buck the historical trend of the midterms going against the president's party.
That trend has typically been tied to a president's approval numbers and a generic congressional ballot question about which party a voter would choose. This election cycle, that answer had favored Republicans, but since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, that advantage has disappeared.
The latest USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll shows Democrats with a 44%-40% advantage over Republicans on the generic congressional ballot.
Suburban voters who chose Republicans in countywide, school board and township races in 2021 are trending back to Democrats because of the abortion issue, according to Terry Madonna, senior political affairs fellow at Millersville University near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
"There isn't any doubt that abortion has shifted the tide," he said. But, he cautioned, "we have a long way to go to November."
Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Job gains, abortion: Biden, Democrats getting a boost as midterms near